Special to BackSportsPage by Sean K. Palmer
There’s less than 40 days until the puck drops on the 2015-2016 NHL hockey season. As it approaches, there is a strange feeling upon me; something or someone is missing.
See, I've been an Islander fan since the day that I was born. From the moment my grandfather took me to my first game, sometime in the late 1970's. There I saw Bossy, Trottier, Potvin, and of course, the legendary coach, Al Arbour.
I basically grew up, with my brothers and cousins, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York; home to the New York Islanders. Now a lot has been said, by myself and others, about the state of the Coliseum during the last decade. It was decrepit; called a Mausoleum by others; and as my buddy Seth Kamens talked about the scoreboard, "what is this, Nintendo's RBI Baseball, circa 1992?"
Yes, it was all that....but it was also my home.
Every Tuesday and Saturday night between the months of October and March; from the time that I was born till I went to high school; you could find me and my brothers at the "Old Barn." You could find us there, and to our immediate left was our grandfather. The moment that puck dropped, I felt alive. There was no place I’d rather be, and no person I’d rather be with than my grandfather.
Known to all as "Bert," my grandfather obtained season tickets to the Islanders in their first year, 1972. He was there when it all started. He brought his kids, my mom and aunts, and when the "boys" came, starting in 1975 with my brother Mitch, followed by myself in 1976, my brother Jay in 1978 and my cousin Adam in 1980, hockey came with it.
Throughout the victories and losses (the losses happened less frequently back then), the all-star games, Bossy, Clarke, Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier, Ranger games, my grandfather was there with us, cheering right alongside us. Four straight Stanley Cups; 19 straight playoff series won; fifty goals in fifty games; a dynasty on Long Island!
The Islanders were the hot ticket at that time, in the 70’s and 80’s. The Coliseum was the place to be. My grandfather loved going to games, that's for certain. He loved getting to know the ushers; getting to the Coliseum early; talking with the parking attendant and getting that perfect spot (even if it meant slipping him a couple of bucks). He loved getting his coffee and talking to the concessionaire, and making sure that he said hello to everyone.
Make no mistake…..EVERYONE knew Bert. He was the Mayor of the Coliseum.
The funny thing is...I don’t even think he liked hockey! He loved going to games.
People talk about "showing up" as the most important thing in life. Well, my grandfather never failed to "show up" for a hockey game……if only to spend time with us.
The "Old Barn" shut its doors this past spring and in less than 40 days, the puck will drop, starting the Islanders’ season at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. When the Islanders made the announcement a couple of years ago, I called up my grandfather (who had since moved to Phoenix) and talked of the demise of the Coliseum.
I asked him if he would come out for the final game. To make one last trip to my second home. To our place that we had shared so many great times and memories.
He was not going to be able make the trip across the country. I was heartbroken, but understanding. This mountain of a man, was telling me that he was not going to be able to show up, for the very first time in my life. Crying, I told him of my plan to buy tickets for my brothers and have them come with me to the final game. Between my tears, he smiled at me and told me that would be appropriate.
A month before the Islanders closed out the place where they had spent their entire existence, my grandfather fell very ill. I was returning from the Coliseum with Seth on Martin Luther King Day and I felt the need to call him to talk to him about the game. He asked about the old place, and how it had changed. Needless to say, I told him, it hadn't changed very much, and that’s why the team was moving.
He asked me if Mitch was coming out to the final game (Mitch now lives in Phoenix as well). "Of course, I purchased the tickets for the three of us, just like I told you I would," I told him. "It's only right that we be there for the end, the only thing missing will be you, to the immediate left of us." I could tell he was smiling, and crying, on the other end of the phone.
Three weeks later my grandfather passed away at the age of 91; and a month after that, my brothers and I attended that last regular season game at the "Old Barn."
As the national anthem played before the game I started to cry, recalling the memories of all of us at the old place. The funny thing is, I'm sure that I had cried the first time I was at the Coliseum too, although for an entirely different reason; as I probably wanted a bottle. Knowing my grandfather, he probably had one for me.
My grandfather would have turned 92 yesterday. I want(ed) to call him; to hear his voice; and talk about the upcoming season. In less than forty days the Islanders begin their new era; playing in Brooklyn at Barclays Arena.
I shall enter a new era as well. For the first time in my life, I can't call my grandfather and talk hockey after a game. I can't help but see symmetry between the two. The end of two eras of greatness.
Gramps and the Coliseum.